The New York Times, 12/31/04

Maybe it's the war in Iraq, the continuing threat of terrorism and male anxieties about being tarnished by that dreaded slur, "girlie man," in a bullying political climate, but 2004 was the Year of the Man in movies. Rehabilitated if not sanctified, that quaint bogeyman, the Male Chauvinist Pig, crawled out from his cave to beat his chest, grab his crotch and preen discreetly in upscale art films.

The testosterone injections are especially apparent this season in some of the year's finest supporting performances by actors. Thomas Haden Church, at left, as a roguish, going-to-seed charmer in "Sideways" and Clive Owen as a swashbuckling British dermatologist with a pornographic imagination in "Closer" are men we all recognize but have seldom seen illuminated with such clarity.

Clark Gregg as a toadying corporate shark and an uncredited Malcolm McDowell as a jargon-spouting British mega-mogul in Paul Weitz's comedy "In Good Company" are broader, more familiar caricatures with an updated vocabulary. The first Hollywood film to take on the gap between ambitious yuppies and complacent boomers in the corporate workplace, "In Good Company" could do for the words synergy and cross-marketing what "The Graduate" did for plastics.

Not coincidentally, all three movies are ensemble pieces, since there is no comfortable place for a superhero in a realistic cross section of flawed human beings. "Sideways" was made without a major star. Although "Closer" roped in Julia Roberts and Jude Law for box-office insurance, it hasn't paid off, since Ms. Roberts, as a glum, potty-mouthed photographer, is defiantly playing against type.

"Closer," directed by Mike Nichols from Patrick Marber's play, is a merciless X-ray of erotic gamesmanship in the computer age that reduces relationships to brutal sexual equations. "In Good Company" softens its harsher edge by starring Dennis Quaid as a harried Father Who Knows Best facing obsolescence as soulless yuppies move in for the kill.

In "Sideways," Mr. Church's character, Jack, is a second-string television actor whose good looks are on the verge of collapsing into weather-beaten flab. Jack might almost be called an anti-star because his emergence as a feckless crybaby blows the lid off a certain kind of Hollywood-defined male glamour.

By sacrificing box-office star power and cheap romantic fantasy to achieve an unusual depth of psychological realism, "Sideways" may be the ultimate American ensemble movie on a cinematic playing field dominated by star vehicles. Mr. Church's performance is only one element of the film's perfectly balanced casting, in which three other actors, Paul Giamatti, Virginia Madsen and Sandra Oh, join him to create an all-American grown-up foursome tiptoeing over the treacherous turf where middle-aged male angst collides with single female loneliness.

"Sideways" is content to be truthful and small. Larger, splashier Hollywood movies also include great supporting performances, but these tend to stand apart from the films surrounding them. And the characters, even with their flaws, are often mythically supersized. In "The Aviator," Cate Blanchett, at right, portraying Katharine Hepburn, dares to match her bold impersonation to the dimensions of the Hepburn legend. Morgan Freeman in "Million Dollar Baby" serves as that film's sagacious, rueful voice of experience. It is the same quietly oratorical voice that Mr. Freeman has embodied so many times before that he more or less owns the part.

No one in "Sideways," least of all Jack, speaks with that tone of authority. Determined to enjoy one last fling before he marries into a wealthy family, Jack turns a premarital wine-tasting excursion up the California coast with his buddy Miles Raymond (Mr. Giamatti) into a compulsive, last-chance sexual escapade.

As we watch him put the moves on Stephanie (Ms. Oh), a free-spirited wine-pourer who falls for him in a matter of hours, we wonder what the consequences will be. But Jack, buzzed by the charge of his own magnetism, doesn't wonder. He is the kind of spoiled womanizer whose self-esteem is dependent on his appeal to the opposite sex. As long as he can sweep a woman off her feet, youth is still within his grasp. And the temptation to keep on sweeping is as irresistible as it is desperate. Mr. Church's portrayal of an infantile manchild ultimately nails a kind of garden-variety male narcissism as no movie before it has done.

The compassion that the director, Alexander Payne, and his fellow screenwriter, Jim Taylor, extend to Jack makes their portrait all the more devastating, since he is such a likable rat. By the end of the film, when he has broken one woman's heart and carelessly messed with another's marriage, a dirty little secret is revealed: some men, through looks and charm, have it so easy with the opposite sex that they never grow up because they don't have to.

Mr. Owen's Larry, at left, in "Closer" regards women with the same predatory lust once projected by Clark Gable, whose air of sexual confidence earned him the nickname the King. But instead of the leer and the raised eyebrow that signaled Gable's intentions, Larry looks at women with a penetrating, animalistic glare that drills through their clothes. There are disquieting hints of violence in Larry's face and bark. Even while acting courtly, this Sexy Beast sizes up women as pieces of raw meat.

Because "The Aviator" wallows in Hollywood mythology, it is in many ways the opposite of "Sideways," "Closer" or "In Good Company." Using all the technological razzle-dazzle at its disposal, it shoots for the moon and sometimes lands there. The most arresting performance in "The Aviator," Martin Scorsese's biopic of Howard Hughes, is Ms. Blanchett's outsize impersonation of the young Hepburn. Adopting Hepburn's patrician Yankee accent and mannish stride, the Australian actress becomes an ur-Hepburn who sets the movie on fire when she sashays into view. In the most thrilling scene, she and Hughes (played by Leonardo DiCaprio in a fierce lead performance that is a triumph of acting over leftover baby fat) fly one of his planes over Los Angeles, a ruling god and goddess in full glory, gazing down on the American Olympus.
But a movie like "The Aviator" presents a challenge to actors who lack Ms. Blanchett's alchemical gifts, which throw the weaknesses of the other performances into high relief. Compared with Ms. Blanchett's Hepburn, Jude Law's Errol Flynn is a mannerly wimp and Kate Beckinsale's Ava Gardner a pallid, juiceless spitfire manquée.

Bill Condon's "Kinsey" is another film that has an ensemble feel, even though its center is a towering performance by Liam Neeson as the gawky, fanatically dedicated sex researcher Alfred Kinsey. Laura Linney, as his often neglected wife, and Peter Sarsgaard, as the doctor's devoted assistant, deliver complex portrayals of people in Kinsey's orbit who, consciously or not, become his research subjects, dangerously contorting their lives in the name of less-than-objective science.

The purest ensemble movie of the season is the British director Mike Leigh's gloomy period piece, "Vera Drake." Set in the postwar desolation of working-class London in 1950, the film features the most powerful screen performance of the year by Imelda Staunton, at right, as the saintly title character, a discreet neighborhood abortionist and do-gooder who feels it is her duty to help girls in trouble.

Ms. Staunton's immersion in this unglamorous, self-effacing frump, who is arrested, tried and sent to prison, isn't what we usually think of as a star turn; it's also inseparable from the surrounding portrayals created by weeks of group improvisation. (The list of perfectly calibrated supporting performances would include a dozen names.) It's as if these repressed, downtrodden people, who entertain the humblest expectations for the future, had been rocketed half a century forward and deposited open-mouthed and fearful into a world they could never comprehend.